“Orpheus Descending” by Tennessee Williams presented by The Intiman Theatre Festival

This is one of Williams’ least performed works. It had a very short run in New York when first produced in 1957 and enjoyed only modest success when remounted on Broadway in 1989. Though it did have some critical success on British stages. There’s a reason for the mediocre reception given this work. It is not an easy play. This production doesn’t make it easier.

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Photo by Jeff Carpenter

The story is that of a young drifter (our Orpheus), Val, who enters Hell, here represented as a general store in a small southern town. Lady Torrance runs the store for her much older and debilitated red-neck husband who is far too ill to do almost anything. He was, however, some years back able to play key roles in Klan activities.

This is the south as Williams perceives it. A hell filled with corruption, small minds, gossip, racism, arson, murder, and lonely ladies. Oh, and a fair dose of Christian symbolism. As conceived in this production it is also a place where men play women’s roles and blacks play white roles, something that confused me initially rather than adding gravitas to the production.

Shortly after it begins, Val enters carrying an accordion and ready to make sweet music and sweet love. The instrument is however, referred to throughout the play as a guitar (that’s what the script calls for, but guitar/accordion . . . that’s the least of the confusions here). Poor Val is like the mythological Orpheus; this is not going to end well for him. He sees the racism, repression, loneliness, corruption, and desire of this particular hell and experiences its violence.

If you are a passionate fan of Tennessee Williams, you won’t want to miss this. You’re not likely to see this Williams’ play soon again. If, however, you like your theatre straight forward and easily comprehensible, this may not be for you despite its fine cast and good acting.

Through August 2, produced by Intiman Theatre Festival at 12th Ave. Arts Theatre, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle, (intiman.org)

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